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Q & A: systematically learning physics

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Most recent answer: 04/07/2012
Q:
I want to learn physics. I think I would like it. I took two semesters in college. Towards the end of all that work, we were basically told, "Actually, all of that Newtonian physics you just learned only really works in very specific circumstances." That really turned me off. I kind of felt tricked. I get that the Newtonian stuff is simple and that's why they start with it, but I would be much more comfortable working from general to specific. Can you recommend a book that works that way? To give you an idea of my background: 1. I went to college for 6 yrs, got good grades, but never finished any major. 2. I have Asperger's Syndrome, but a pretty mild version. Think not quite as bad as Sheldon Cooper. 3. According to the I.Q. people I'm a genius, but I never have never really felt that smart. Thanks so much for providing this service! I am often bothered by the mathematic and scientific illiteracy in the general population, and this sort of thing fights against that.
- Tania Reppucci (age 38)
Andover, MA, USA
A:
Tania- That's a very interesting challenge. Your desire to learn the fundamentals and then derive the specific cases is quite typical for serious physicists, and sometimes puts us a bit out-of-synch with some engineering students. However, I've never heard of anyone learning special-relativistic quantum mechanics (quantum field theory) first and then gradually deriving special cases, such as Newtonian physics. It's not actually possible to teach starting with the deepest and most general basics, which would include both General Relativity and quantum mechanics in a unified theory, because no one has developed that theory yet.

So here's a suggestion, which you might try and then get back to us if it's not working well. You might start with some fairly deep texts. The 3-volume Feynman lectures come to mind. So does Purcell's book on electricity and magnetism and Reif's book on thermal physics, both from the Berkeley series. Howard Georgi's Physics 16 at Harvard is said to be a great introduction for serious-minded students. The lecture notes are online but you may need Mathematica to see the full versions.

Mike W.

(published on 04/07/2012)

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